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The Winner in the Kinsley-Greenwald Spat: The New York Times Book Review

Opinion journalism—which is what a book review is—can not be subject to some kind of impartial standard of correctness.

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Before the Margaret Sullivan on Michael Kinsley on Glenn Greenwald controversy collapses in on itself like a black hole in an implosion of meta, let’s take a moment to address what is admittedly a minor aspect of the whole affair: the purpose and ethics of book reviewing. In case you haven’t been following the mini-tempest, here are the basics. In this coming Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley—a former editor at The New Republic and a highly respected political pundit—reviews No Place to Hide, the new book by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who was responsible for sharing Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks with the world press. (It’s a sign of the way journalism works now that the whole controversy over the review has occurred before the review even came out in print.) 

Kinsley, suffice it to say, is not impressed by Greenwald’s self-image as the last honest man, nor by his attacks on the tameness of the mainstream media, nor by his justification for publishing classified government documents. The core of Kinsley’s argument is that individual journalists like Greenwald cannot be allowed to have the final say on exposing government secrets: “Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald,” he writes. No sooner had the review gone online than Greenwald wrote his rebuttal, accusing Kinsley of demonstrating the very willingness to fall into line with government secrecy that he criticizes in his book. “Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government?” Greenwald asks contemptuously. 

What we have here, in other words, is an example of the very thing everyone complains is usually missing in public life: a substantive debate about important issues. It’s impossible to read Kinsley on Greenwald, and then Greenwald on Kinsley on Greenwald, without acknowledging that both of them have made serious and thought-provoking points. Kinsley is surely correct that the press cannot have unlimited freedom to publish any government secret. What would we say about a journalist who published American battle plans, or the location of nuclear weapons silos, or the identity of undercover agents? Just as Kinsley said, someone has to decide where to draw the curtain of secrecy, without worrying that any individual with an Internet connection can poke holes in it. Yet Greenwald is also convincing when he writes that, were we to leave such decisions entirely up to the government, we would be left in the dark about all kinds of wrongdoing that could not survive public exposure. Here is a genuine conflict of values, and the side one takes depends on one’s view of the dangers of anarchy versus the dangers of tyranny. 

If there is one undeniable winner in this affair, it is The New York Times Book Review (to which, full disclosure, I am a regular contributor). Its editor, Pamela Paul, made a match of reviewer and subject that resulted not just in a witty and engaging review, but in a serious intellectual discussion, one that has taken fire beyond the pages of the Book Review itself and brought public attention to a significant issue. That’s just what book reviewing is supposed to do. 

It is bizarre, then, that the Times’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Kinsley’s review as if it were some kind of journalistic malfeasance. Sullivan took issue both with the review’s “sneering tone” and with its central claim that the press should ultimately defer to government secrecy. To Sullivan, this position ignores “important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” 

If anything is wrong here, however, it’s the notion that a piece of opinion journalism—which is what a book review ultimately is—can be subject to correction by some kind of impartial standard of correctness. If Kinsley had made errors of fact—if he had misquoted the First Amendment, or gotten a Supreme Court decision wrong—that would be one thing. But he does nothing of the kind; rather, he expresses an opinion that the freedom of the press is not unlimited, that it must eventually yield to a democratic government, which after all has the legitimacy conferred by a hundred million voters. This is not an error, it is an argument, and the response to it cannot be a correction, but only another better argument, if there is one to be made. 

Indeed, that is the whole premise of liberalism going back to Mill. The free exchange of ideas cannot be constrained by some outside standard of rightness, the liberal believes; rather, the decision about who is right should emerge from that very process of exchange. That is why the whole idea of an ombudsman does not apply to political and intellectual debate, because there is no privileged position, above and outside the fray, from which such judgments can be issued. The idea that a reviewer might be censured for her opinions, by the official spokesman of the very publication that published them, should give every writer—and reader—pause. Sometimes, when a review makes readers angry, that is because it is has done its job.

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This piece has been updated.